Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Marketing TV to Children

There's a channel called Sprout on many cable services now. There's also the ironically-named channel called Noggin. These are channels that are aimed at 0-2 year olds. The companies that run the channels are really biting the bullet for you here--there are no commercial interruptions on these channels. Just 24 hours a day of television for your baby. This is good, right?

If you read this blog at all, you know what my stance is going to be.

Doctors have told us time and time again that children under 2 should watch zero hours of TV a day. That's zero. Why is this? What's so evil about a channel that is benevolent enough to provide you with kids shows free of commercials?

The medium of TV is unique. The two-dimensional world of television is disorienting to our bodies. Whenever there is what is called a "formal feature," such as a cut, zoom, edit, wipe, whatever, our bodies respond with a particular adrenal reaction. It's called the orienting response. As predators, strange movements like those catch our attention. And in order to react to being disoriented, our blood pressure drops, giving us a moment of calm that last from 4-6 seconds. Yes, this is an exceptionally mild, hardly noticeable to the mind, unless they were to come in huge doses.

During most TV shows, these features occur every--you guessed it--4-6 seconds. During commercials and music videos, they come every second.

Your body knows this. This is why it's relaxing to watch TV. The content of a show itself is not relaxing, otherwise we'd be watching landscapes with ambient music. But as we follow Jack (from 24 or Lost) through a weekly tribulation, we get a dose of Soma.

When your baby sits watching Elmo or Dora and seems to be concentrating or at ease, it's not because they are learning or relaxing. It's because they are mesmerized by the most prevalent drug in history, getting dose after dose from their own bodies courtesy of the TV.

You may wonder why Johnny and Jill seem to be having a problem concentrating in school several years from now.

But we still haven't answered the question of what the channels get out of this. First of all, of course, they are selling products to these 0-2 year olds. They are selling them Dora and Elmo licensed products. And though they may not buy them themselves, and though they may even be too young to nag in many cases, their parents buy them for them. They know that their little Johnny is enthralled with Elmo's World and that the Spanglish-speaking little imp is empowering Jill by exploring.

Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, they're selling them TV. They're creating TV watchers out of them from birth. Since the late 70s, marketing companies have focused their larger clients with the strategy of "cradle-to-grave marketing" (their name for it, not mine). They know that if they can land them young, they'll be consumers all their lives. Then they can rest easy under a Dora tombstone.

When you stop watching TV, you no longer get the relaxation effects leave your body. However, this leaves you jittery and anxious. That's because while the relaxation leaves, but you are left with passivity and lethargy. Anyone who's ever been addicted knows that you don't want that kind of let-down. They know that kids will keep watching, just to stay sane.

Having your children sit forever in front of TV may seem easy. And I understand the impulse to watch hours of TV after a long day. But there has never been a force more damaging to imagination and creativity. Be a badass--turn it off.

Giving Up TV
10 Ways to Tame TV
10 Alternative to Conventional TV

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